Prudence – week 4

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

On my fourth week exploring prudence, I shifted my focus inside, and centered on myself.

Prudence requires that I pay close attention to my environment: will I discern more if I can be more present? I started the week with a simple exercise: while engaging in other activities all through the day, I focused on my breathing. Two things emerged. First, that I would naturally slow down whatever else I was doing when I consciously paid attention to my breath – but very soon, I was able to pick up speed, while maintaining a strong sense of presence. Second, I noted a sort of clear-headedness – my mind emptied, leaving space for the world to come in.

The second day reached eleven thirty before I could sit down and set myself a deliberate goal. I decided to go with it, and see whether I was able to simply trust my existing systems and routines. It learned that it didn’t work: looking back, it was a reasonably productive day, but I left with a sense of incompletion. Is it the case, then, that if we live our days without a goal, we’ll never feel a sense of accomplishment?

That’s where my reflection picked up on Tuesday. Why do we give so much importance to ‘doing’, as opposed to ‘not doing’. Surely, restricting ourselves, in many circumstances, is an act of prudence. But for this, we need to discipline our own aspiration to more, more, more – beyond material greed, we need to restrain a more spiritual form of greed that pushes us to read more, write more, achieve more. Curb hybris. And inspired by this, I found myself writing on the stream of a Facebook friend asking ‘what do you believe is the purpose of life’ that it is about accepting death or, even better, rejoicing in the finitude of our own existence.

Wednesday was a particular occasion: I received an award as new Australian of the Year, and had a speech to make. I never write my speeches – in the belief that presence is key to gaining attention, and a structured but partly improvised speech ensures a considerably higher level of presence. In line with this, my key goal was to focus on my own voice and balance. I realised I learnt a key lesson of prudence from my mother: as a kid, when I tried apologising for bad behaviour saying ‘such and such also did it’, she would invariably reply, ‘and if they jump in the river, will you jump after them’? Conformism is no excuse, and nothing will justify renouncing our own independent judgement. The speech when well – you can find the full text here. A few people came saying: ‘this was very moving’. More importantly, I not only was able to talk of how my own tradition was carried forward in Australia, but also performed as myself, embodying a delicate, calm and sensitive version of masculinity. Whether it had a direct impact, I’m unsure.

On Thursday, guided by a sense of accomplishment, I pondered on the rest of the year. Part of prudence is anticipating what might be done, and I thought of a few things I could do to train temperance, justice, fortitude. A favourite: ‘praise women’. Since one of the great injustices of the world is the systematic lower level of recognition that women receive, why not start systematically praising the women around me for the good things that they do? And so, this may be a short blog post series for July and August.

I ended the week with a mild hangover from excessive tension leading up to my Wednesday speech – a knot in my stomach, a pulsing headache, tensions in my shoulders. I took it as an opportunity to connect with my body, and acknowledge my own weight. I am limited by gravity, systematically pulled downwards. Yet before heading to bed, I did some QiGong exercises, calmly raising and releasing my arms, sensing my own verticality, the circulation of the air inside of me – and even as I felt the weight of my flesh, I could also feel the empty space inside, the potential that comes with it, and my own power, even if limited, to stand erect, and lift up my arms.

Prudence – week 3

vrThis year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

After a first week looking for perspective and a second finding balance between plans and serendipity, my third week focused on identifying the nature of my various activities.

If prudence judges whether an action is good and bad, its exercise requires – as a logical preliminary – that we clearly distinguish between our various actions and activities over the course of a day. Yet, often, we conduct our lives in a state of great vagueness. I looked for a way to classify what I do, and decided that my key criteria should be the type of goal that I pursue. I distinguished four main types of activities: prepare for something yet undefined; define and design a specific project; execute a defined actions towards a specific goal; and finally, do ‘cleaning’, a category that brings together life administration, sorting through files, and taking a restorative walk. My original prompt was identifying my personal bottlenecks. I noted that, often, I do things without a clear goal in sight – and therefore get easily stuck or distracted. The blockage is largely cognitive: if I do not know what I am doing and why, then I will most likely stop, and do something else. This helped: I decided I had nothing specific I needed to do that day, and therefore could spend my afternoon ‘cleaning’ – lift old blockages, put things in order. So, I picked up a large book I started years ago but never finished, made significant progress, and felt a tremendous sense of achievement.

Our time is limited, and we should make the best use of it. Yet a closer look reveals a difficult aspect of the problem. My days are not like a single melodic line, a string of activities clearly separate from each other. Rather, it is like a fugue – with many notes occurring at the same time and weaving multiple intertwining melodies. One occasionally takes over, then recedes, while another comes forward. I wake up, I go to work, I go back home. I write emails, I draft a project plan, I make a phone call. I eat, I drink, I shit. I feel joy, I have an insight, I create new shared memories with a friend. I tried, for a day, to focus on these intertwining lines – and found it excessively hard. The capacity to describe our own lives is a crucial component of prudence – yet how difficult it is, and how limited our capacity to simply name the scope of our activities.

My work alternates between outward focussed engagement, and solitary periods of writing and design. I learnt to focus my days on either. Tuesday was an extraverted day, with five meetings in five different places. Retaining a sense of inner calm and continuity was my original goal, but in the middle of the afternoon, I realised I had entirely forgotten to do so – swallowed by the Maelstrom of other people. I tried a meditative correction: whenever I encountered a threshold, pause for a short moment, marking a transition. I failed, and so decided to try again the following day.

Wednesday was a quiet day, writing from a co-working space in Footscray. I decided that, before entering a new space, I would mark a short pause, and notice the change of setting. Once again, I did not do well. For six hours, the only change was getting in and out of the bathroom. Every time, as I came back to my chair, I realised I had forgotten to mark a pause. And so – I thought – could there be no clear boundary between what I accomplish at my desk, and what I accomplish in a cubicle?

Focusing on thresholds was a way to better notice environments. That’s what I did on Thursday. Walking through the streets of suburban Prahran, breathing in the beauty of a Melbourne midsummer morning, I reflected on the potential danger of complete absorption in the world outside: how easy to be lulled in the golden reflections of the sun playing in eucalyptus leaves and pink laurels. On the way back home, I noted how artificial my immediate environment was: not only manmade, but defined by the presence of other people engaging in complex webs of urban activities – commerce, trade, consumption. Not only their activities: I noted as I sat through a most problematic meeting how much my environment was defined by the perception of others. I met with a designer in the afternoon, we struggled to connect, I felt an ethical gap between us – and left off-balance. A set of basic shared norms and values bind our society together. When we differ, additional effort in truthfully describing our own inner world is required. In that instance, it failed, and I felt a pang. I wasn’t prepared.

Let’s be unprepared, then, I thought on Friday – and see what happens if I deliberately choose to change course over the day, following impulses. I was planning a day in Footscray, but instead, headed to my office in South Melbourne – saving myself an hour of commute and 40 dollars. Then events caught up with me. I was never going to be on Bourke Street when a madman rammed a car through pedestrians, but I found myself obsessively checking the Internet through most of the afternoon. At the last minute, I read from someone, somewhere, the driver made up his mind, swerved onto the mall, and drove through the crowd. And I was reminded of how little control we have over our lives – and how our plans can be disrupted by the sudden irruption of somebody else’s erratic course. I walked back home late from a friend’s place, noticing my changed urban environment. I had to walk up and down a few blocks until I was able to ask a police officer to escort me to my front door. My street was entirely cordoned off – the space outside my building had become a crime scene.

Prudence – week 2

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

Week one was about perspective and exploration. Week two was about preparing for the future. How can I live a life both responsibly planned and open to serendipity?

This was the question I started with on Sunday. I woke up early, and headed to my favourite cafe, where I followed my Chinese  and PhD practice routines: I have systems in place that help me stick to goals in both fields. But as I read and wrote, I started chatting on my phone – including with a visitor from Romania. We spent a couple of hours together, talking about religions and world views. There’s a chance I might work with his organisation in Timisoara. He lives half the year on my mother’s Island, and I might introduce them. We were able to meet because I let myself be distracted from other pursuits.

Inspired by our Sunday conversations, I decided on the Monday that I would focus on anticipating misunderstandings. It was a well-suited day for this. I had a six hour workshop with a French friend, in which I deliberately clarified my assumptions about activities we discussed, articulating definitions, and aiming for maximal precision. This happened in French, and was a very powerful exercise to solidify the concepts in my head: bullshit does not resist translation. Later that day, I had a Skype meeting with my Swedish team. Then I realised a thing. Silences are part of conversations. Various cultures organise turn taking differently. Some things will be said, others left unsaid. With practice, translating what is said becomes easy, relatively. But there is an ocean of unsaid, much harder to translate – yet defining all our interactions, and a more dangerous source of errors and confusion than mistranslated concepts.

Is it prudence to say ‘fuck it’ on special occasion, loosen plans, and let chaos rule? On Tuesday, for my birthday, I thought I would embracemy inner Dionysios. Beyond core daily disciplines, I went with the flow. There was a meeting, a vague plan – executed – to buy a pair of pants, and an impromptu lunch. I let some space for chaos, and had a few gorgeous moments, But – as it turned out – wasn’t quite clear enough. I set myself to finish a book that I didn’t finish, and felt frustrated. I had to be back home on time to prepare my birthday dinner. It was a nice day, but left a mild sense of incompletion. I didn’t accomplish much, and I didn’t fully relax.  I let myself wander, but was not consistently present to my wanderings.

I had to face a different situation the following day. There had been twelve people home, too much wine, too much food.  It was hot, I didn’t sleep very well. I had not put an alarm, started the day late, and woke up tired. What would be the prudent thing to do? Let plans drop, and nurse my hangover? Or stick firmly to daily routines, at least? I reframed this in the following way: should I attend to my present self – telling me to rest more – or to my past self, the one that, in full possessions of their means, decided on a set of tasks? I held on to routines, and felt energised. But in the afternoon, plans needed rethinking. I had to postpone a planned check up after I realised I needed an appointment. And so, loose tiredness took over, and I spent an afternoon doing nothing in particular, lingering in front of the screen, unable to replace my plan with a new one, or plug off.

On the following day, this is what I aimed to improve. We live most of our lives in a state of great vagueness. We’ve got big ideas for the future, but as we move closer, our goals shift and ripple. There is a narrow path between two dangers: the ‘big-picture’ that remains forever hazy, and the close-minded ‘attention to details’. I had previously decided that this would be a day for focusing on my PhD. I had an appointment with my supervisor, and came with a clear overarching question: how can I best use the remaining time in my PhD so that the work will be most useful for others, and most helpful for my own professional future. I further broke it down into three sharper question: should I reframe the thesis and focus on the topic of educational design (where I see heading); should I aim to finish soon, or delay; and what else, beside my existing activities and the PhD, should I focus on. Her wise advice was comforting on the second and third points. As to the thesis, ‘tread lightly’, she said, in other words, ‘beware the rabbit holes’. I should avoid excessive attempts at erudition. Strike the right balance between excessive vagueness, and too much details.

At the end of the week, I was back to my initial question: how can I set myself goals in such a way that I can both accomplish plans, and leave room for serendipity? In December, I bought one of those ‘goals diaries’ offering templates for systematic  reflection. I spent a few hours filling it in at the end of December, and on Friday, reviewed it for the first time. I noted an ambiguous feeling: I had already done a lot / I was progressing too slowly. I wondered: why this contradiction? The missing element was a sense of duration. Most of my goals were articulated in a clear manner – but I never sat down and calculated how many hours, in total, over the year, I would spend on each. So I did that for one project. I have decided to work on my Chinese reading skills, and read four books in Mandarin, at the rate of 4 pages a day. I realised two things. First, that this added up to about eight months only – leaving a full third of the year for rest or flexibility. This, somehow, never made it to my calculations – yet I already anticipated a sense of guilt at not reading six books, only the four I committed to. More interestingly, I realised I had no idea exactly how long it would take me to read four pages a day. The calculation was helpful – and yielded a week of rest, for the four months I would not be reading! I continued with my day, feeling calmer, following my plans. I finished early. I had to stay in my Footscray co-working space for call, so cleaned my desktop, stretched, and played with a jigsaw puzzle. On the way back, a friend invited me to dinner. I had finished my week, I was prepared for serendipity – and I had a beautiful night.

Now, I shall take the rest of my Saturday to rest. It is prudent to take Sabbaths. And I’ll think of my next week tomorrow.

Prudence – week 1

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

This whole week, I have been looking for the right perspective to consider prudence.

It began with a simple proposition: what good is a virtue that we do not practice? To start the year, I set myself a simple task: before each action, pause for a moment and ask, is this a good thing to do? Though the scope of my activities was pretty trivial, after hosting a large New Year’s Eve party, this simple temporary suspension had a considerable effect. I realised how much of my actions had become automatic – eating, playing on my phone, fluffing around the house. More important, the deliberate exercise of prudence revealed how often I found myself in a morally confused state, not knowing, in each moment, whether I was doing the right thing or not – particularly when I chose to rest. On the first night of the year, after a full day, I told myself: sleeping is the right thing to do now. My mind grew calm, and the day ended happily. The deliberate exercise of prudence turned out to be a powerful form of mindfulness.

The second day put an immediate stop to my enthusiasm. It should have been simple. prudence considers the past to make decisions for the future. I took time to reflect on the decisions I made in 2016, hoping to learn from them. I hit a wall, almost instantly. How can I assess whether decisions have been good or bad, if I cannot follow the full ramifications of their consequences? A concrete example stood out: in 2016 accepted a difficult role and I did OK. Was it a good thing, because I learned and delivered – or was it a bad thing, because another would have done better, and I would have been better off doing something else? The more I pondered, the deeper I went down the spiral. How presumptuous to believe that we can assess the consequences of our actions, and say with remote confidence: this was good! Yet if we cannot ever say so, can we still aspire to prudence?

I shifted perspective on the third day, and thought about danger. Every morning, I copy one page of the Yi Jing. The following sentence appeared: ‘when there is danger all around, you can only solve minor problems’. Chinese wisdom prompted me to think of danger in a new manner: the point is not to avoid or seek danger, but change our goals on the basis of our environment. If there is danger, we should pare down our goals, temporarily. I thought back of a sign I saw when visiting the sacred mountain of Taishan, in Shandong province. It said: “danger, falling stones, move fast”. I realised at the time, here is an alternative to the risk-averse, legalistic and hypocritical signs of Australia, ‘don’t go, don’t touch, don’t drink’. The Chinese proposed a wiser approach: ‘don’t linger’, they said. Act in proportion to the conditions of your environment.

Prudence is intimately connected to time. Certain actions are appropriate at certain moments, not others. when I lie in bed at night, resting is right. When I sit at my desk in the middle of the day, it is not. On the fourth day, I thought of prudence as a guide to the right use time – and wondered how I should plan my day. A paradox arose: to use time well, I should spend some of that time assessing my goals and how to reach them. Yet is ‘planning’ not a wasteful use of time better spent ‘doing’. Over the past years, I explored various models for personal and professional productivity – planning each hour of a day, identifying high level goals… On Wednesday, I was in my shared office in Footscray, aiming resume serious work on a PhD, but failing to do so. I took a walk to nearby Seddon, and things clarified. I realised I needed three things to support my commitment to this large, long-term work. Two were there: a clear why and a clear roadmap. But the third was missing: I had not assessed how long the next few steps ahead would take, and therefore recoiled. I came back to my desk, and happily went through notes and quotes for the rest of the afternoon, then was able to pursue this later in the week, all the while repeating to myself: this is the right thing for me to do now.

Acting with prudence is a commitment to make the best use of our most precious non-renewable treasure, time. Prudence therefore demands of us, every single moment, to consider what we should agree to, and what we should refuse. Every ‘yes’, whether conscious or automatic, forced or freely consented, entails an infinite number of ‘no’s’. Whatever we do, we sacrifice all the things we might otherwise be doing. Considering how little we can assess the consequences of our actions, the temptation is high to seek a higher power, act as told, and avoid responsibility. What if, then, prudence consists in willingly foregrounding this immense responsibility: know that every single thing we do, and every single thing we don’t, is our own decision. Prudence, thus considered, is a tough school of humility: it exposes our many failures, and leaves us begging for forgiveness.

Can we, nonetheless, improve the way we lead our lives? On the last day of the week, I wondered how I might physically train prudence. If prudence is conscious consideration of alternative choices, then deliberately looking left and right, up and down, would certainly be the right physical exercise. This I have to credit to THNK body-mind trainer extraordinaire, Andra: she made us aware of how much our lives focus on the little square in front of us, the screen we look at, the road ahead, and invited us, through regular twisting movements, to break this dangerous habit. Yet something unexpected happened. I was in my favourite cafe, on a stool in the window, and as I deliberately twisted my neck left and right, realised I could see behind myself through the window – the whole room was mirrored. Later, on the street, I tried again, laughing at the paradox that my act of prudence was not looking ahead. There was a construction site on the left. In the large, dark ground floor windows, I could see my own image moving forward, and obstacles on my path, reflected. The penny dropped. Prudence is represented holding a mirror. Our environment, and the tools that we make, multiply our perspectives, giving us artificial eyes behind our backs. Prudence is not just about physical training, but also learning to wisely use artifacts and technology to guide and improve our activity.

And so, the first week is over. I take this the seventh day to rest, reflect and share. Tomorrow, I shall return to daily practice.

Cardinal virtues – a project for 2017

prudence-2 temperance-2fortitude-2 justice-2

This is a sharp memory from my grade Ten French class. We were studying French moralist writers of the 17th century, and our teacher explained one of the fundamental religious debates of the time: the respective role of Grace and Virtues on our salvation. It was the height of religious wars in Europe, and the question of Grace was at the core of a theological opposition between Protestants and Catholics, echoed in France in a polemic between two Catholic factions, the Jesuits and the Jansenists (represented by Pascal). According to Jesuit views – inspired by Renaissance Humanism – God offers his supernatural grace to all humans; it is our duty to meet Him halfway, and use our free-will to deliberately cultivate virtues and accomplish good works. This goes directly against the belief of Jansenists – as well as most Protestant theology – who take a more pessimistic view of mankind: our sinful nature is such that only the Grace of God has efficacy to grant us salvation. All attempts at cultivating moral virtues and conducting good works carry the risk of fostering pride and delusion.

autocollant-sticker-voiture-croix-camargue-moto

What exactly do we mean when we talk of virtues? For over twenty years, I’ve worn a symbol of my father’s home region around my neck, the ‘guardian cross’, blending a heart, an anchor and a cross. The symbol represents Faith, Hope and Love – three virtues that Paul’s Epistles identify as defining Christianism, and known together as theological virtues. Today, in our post-Christian world, the word virtue evokes at worst a conceited bigot, at best a coy individual, looking for shelter from a corrupting world. But it was not always this way: in its original meaning, virtue has the same root as ‘virile’, and refers to the character of a good citizen – in a famous reflection on the dominant affect in various, Montesquieu associates Virtue to Republican rule. Through the works of Sts Ambrosius, Augustine and Thomas,Catholic theology considers not three, but seven fundamental virtues. Four cardinal virtues, identified in the works of Aristotle, and therefore common to Christians and Pagans, complement Faith, Hope and Love: known as Cardinal Virtues, they are Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude. On a recent public profile I wrote – ‘I like to listen and look for common ground’. My exploration of Cardinal Virtues in 2017 will both allow me to reconnect with my own Catholic heritage, and reflect on universal forms of good behaviour – what makes a good citizen in a range of tradition, and how to cultivate one’s own character.

writing-on-stone

Last year, I started a daily blogging project – a daily page of handwriting which I posted online after light editing. After three months, this was interrupted by a demanding new role with the Global Challenges Foundation. The project I was in charge of setting up has now found its shape, systems are in place, and I’ve been able to reduce the extent of my engagement. This allows me to resume daily writing meditation. So this is what I propose for 2017. I will associate a virtue to each season: Prudence and Summer, Temperance and Autumn, Justice and Winter, Fortitude and Spring. Every day, I will reflect on the season’s virtue, decide a way to practice it over the course of the day, and write about the experience in the evening in a diary. At the end of each week, I will write a short blog post summarising what I did and learnt. Marking the end of each season, I will take a full week to reflect, and compose a deeper written meditation. The project will blend writing and practice – and hopefully, lead both to personal transformation and valuable intellectual insights.

I look forward to this year exploring virtues – and hope we can all learn from this.

On blurred focus

I have never worked on just one thing for more than a week. For as far as I can remember, I have always juggled professional identities and projects. This has made every utterance of the question ‘what do you do’ an opportunity for self-reflection.

Diversity of practice is core to my sense of freedom. Separate the powers: let not my life depend on just one person or one organisation. Hang on different spots, so that if one thread breaks, the web survives.

At times, this juggling is a source of energy. I can hover from one activity to another over the course of the day, following my own rhythm. I pack in more than I would otherwise, with a sense of joy and independence. But there have been moments when I felt a sense of saturation, experienced as internal panic.

Not that deadlines are pressing, but rather, than my focus becomes unclear. I shift my glance left and right. No matter where I look, everything is on a spectrum from complete blur to slight haze. Nothing is crisp and sharp. I can’t figure ‘what to do next’. The mind flickers. Progress stalls.

Three things will precipitate similar states of uncertainty: when deadlines are too close together, when I work with more than three different sets of people, or when expectations and quality criteria for a project are unclear.

What’s the way ahead? Write a piece like this one. Recenter. Stop, reflect. Take a step back. What is my general goal? Where does everything fit? Then, from the big picture, zoom back on the details, and execute.

On business books

Last week, I received a new book in the mail: Alex Ostervalder’s Value Proposition Design, a quasi A4-sized illustrated volume in landscape format. It attempts to provide organisations with tools to develop products and services that match customer demand. The book is divided in four colour-coded sections: canvas, design, test, evolve, and offers a series of graded activities to the reader.

Value Proposition Design explores an innovative model of blended publishing. A website offers extensions to the book, including an online test, printable blank canvases, and further exercises. The paper version originally combines text, images and diagrams, is clearly written, and quite an enjoyable read. It sold remarkably well too.

In spite of all these qualities, I doubt if Ostervalder would ever make it to the guest list of a Writers’ Festival. In cultural circles, business books are dirty. They hover halfway between noble writing and instruction manuals for vacuum cleaners.

My first job in Australia was with a strategy unit in government, and I’ve since done my bit of project management. I realised that the skills required in these ‘office jobs’ were exactly those I developed as a novelist. What is the precise sequence of steps required to take a set of characters from A to B? And what is the best way of conveying this information to a reader, so that they understand the complexities involved, both cognitively, and emotionally?

Whenever I enter a bookshop, I leaf through the pages of novels on the front shelf. Few capture the complexities of our contemporary world with such elegance as Ostervalder. Few pay such attention to form. Few shed such a clear light on our present context. Yet I keep returning to the fiction shelf with more reverence, excitement and anticipation than I do when I browse through the business section.

On building bridges

“If you’re building a bridge, you can’t think like a farmer”. This is what I almost posted on my Facebook wall earlier. But then I caught myself: farmers observe nature continuously, and may be wiser than most of us city dwellers. The better proposition would be, “if you’re building a bridge, you can’t think like a gold-miner.”

Over the years, as I presented Marco Polo Project to potential partners, funders, even mentors, the same question came popping up: what sector are you in? When I tried explaining that we spanned across industries and countries, and didn’t really fit in any, eyes rolled. Some wise advisors even told me that we’d better locate ourselves more clearly, because if we didn’t, who would ever consider funding us?

Find a niche, hey? I understand your logic, but now tell me: what’s the use of a bridge inside a tunnel? And if you’re building on air, then don’t you think it’s wise to rest your weight on two pillars at least?

No wonder we don’t fit in any clear-cut category: our very purpose determines our structure. Not hiding in the cave, digging for gold, but anchored across a range of sectors: literature and education, multicultural communities and partners internationally. We build connection between them and – like bridges – are neither here, nor there, but in-between.

But hey – if you’re looking to dig a gold-mine, you shouldn’t think like a bridge-builder.

The sad truth is

Never trust somebody who starts a sentence with ‘the sad truth is’.

The context

Four years ago, friends and I founded a cultural non-profit organisation called Marco Polo Project. A few months ago, after attending an Asia-leadership event full of cynical corporate workers, I posted a rant on my Facebook wall: ‘What does it say about our current intellectual environment that the first question asked about Marco Polo project is typically not ‘what’s your pedagogical model’, ‘who do you publish’ or ‘why did you develop this’ but ‘who funds it’ or ‘how do you make money’?

Somebody replied: ‘The sad truth is, though, that finanical returns/alternative sources of funding are unfortunately essential for making projects (and the pedagogical models they employ) sustainable.’

Irritated, and amused, I replied: ‘That’s the sad truth. The happy truth is – we haven’t really had financial returns in the first four years, and we’ve survived so far – not growing exponentially, but able to do the job, and regularly trial new things.’

The contention

People will often present statistical probability based on their own ethical outlook under the veil of ‘truth’, and on that premise, disguise ethical decisions as facts. This is dangerous, and should be resisted.

The argument

  1. We live in a world that encourages us to think of our own existence in statistical form. Yet our lives are strictly personal, and probabilities translate existentially to binary alternatives. To take a radical exemple, if you’re having an operation with a 40% survival outlook, by the end of it, you won’t be 40% alive – you will either be dead, or survive. The fact that expected chances of survival are given to you as 40% may lead your decision to have the operation or not, but does not tell you with any level of certainty what your future will be.
  2. ‘Sustainable’ is the biggest keyword in social enterprise and non-profit worlds – even in education. Yet who said cultural ventures need to be sustainable? Maybe writing books and making art is not meant to be ‘a sustainable activity’. Based on historical observation, art seems to flourish in times and spaces where there is abundance, and when abundance ebbs, it dies out. For culture to flourish, we need to create situations of abundance. And maybe the ebb is OK.
  3. That people work for rewards is probably a general truth. Yet what rewards people pursue varies considerably. I did not and do not pursue direct financial rewards through Marco Polo Project. I do seek other types of rewards, and received them. The first was social access – I’ve been invited to join two leadership programs, met with a considerable number of people, and gained their respect. As an educated migrant whose skills and diplomas are non-directly transferable, this is a significant gain. Rather than pay for a degree so that I could run a project, I ran a project so that I am now getting paid to do a degree. The invested cost of running Marco Polo Project was less than a Masters’ in, say, cultural management. The time required arguably identical. The result, I am in a better position to apply for a job in cultural management now. And in the meantime, there’s been a side benefit: I’ve built an organisation, educated language learners, shared Chinese literature, and brought people together.
  4. Everybody recognises that good timing is part of business acumen. Yet few mention patience as a key business virtue. Timing acumen has two logical consequences – either you develop a venture based on what is most likely to succeed now – or you select your own pace of growth waiting for a time when the environment is ripe. Part of patience includes a capacity to be thrifty, and last longer on the same resources. Let’s think more about these old virtues – thrift, temperance, patience – as essential to business success, especially for social entrepreneurs.

The proposition

In a heavily mediated world, where online and offline conversations, comments, arguments are omnipresent, we are in a position to set the discourse. The better story-teller may win the game. So let’s reset – it’s not about ‘the sad truth’, but ‘the happy truth’. And no, I’m not interested in your depressed vision.

(Photograph by Bizarria)